Balanced diet

A balanced diet is not a fad, yo-yo or crash diet. It's a way of ensuring you eat all of the required nutrients for your body to function properly. A balanced diet will not be the same for everyone. We're all different and often, individuals will require different amounts and types of nutrients. What you need will depend on age, gender, lifestyle, health and the rate at which your body works.

Eating a balanced diet is key in maintaining good health and keeping your body in optimum condition. A balanced diet doesn't cut out food groups; it consists of a wide variety of foods to support your body and keep you energised, motivated and healthy.

It may sound simple, but with so much information available, messages about 'healthy eating' can become unclear. Facts become fads and knowing what's good for you can be misunderstood. Here, we'll provide general information on the foods we need, the importance of staying hydrated and how a nutrition professional can support you.

How can a nutrition professional help you?

Whether you're just starting your wellness journey or you're a professional athlete, speaking to a nutrition professional can be very beneficial. It’s easy to get wrapped up in what you see and hear in the media, but what works for one person may not be right for you. If you have a goal, whether it be as simple as getting healthier and looking after your body or running a marathon, there will be certain foods your body needs. Speaking to a professional can help you identify any changes you can make to help you reach your goal.

The journey can be lonely, especially if those close to you don’t understand what you’re doing. A nutrition professional can provide the support you need, push you out of your comfort zone and keep you motivated, all the while educating you on your body and what a balanced diet means to you.

You may be required to complete a food diary before your session, as well as answer some questions to help the professional get a clear understanding of where any issues may lie. If you have any questions, ask. It's important for the professional to know what's on your mind, so they know how to help. Together, you will be able to create a personalised diet plan, tailored to your needs, depending on your goal, your lifestyle or your health concern.

Healthy eating basics

To maintain good health, your body needs whole foods and regular physical activity. If you are interested in adopting a more balanced diet, understanding the basics will make the change seem less daunting. Below are five tips to help you get started:

  • Aim to eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables each day.
  • Drink plenty of water (six to eight glasses is recommended though this will vary).
  • Try to include at least two portions of fish every week.
  • Get into the habit of eating breakfast every day, it can help reduce snacking later on.
  • Get active! Adults are advised to conduct 150 minutes of moderate exercise every week, why not get your friends involved and make it fun?

Portion sizes

Carbohydrates and starchy foods, such as rice, pasta, cereal and potato, should generally be the size of your fist. Butter and spreads are often high in fat and sugar, therefore only a small amount is needed - aim for a portion the size of the tip of your thumb. Protein sources, such as meat and fish, should generally be the size of your palm.

Fruit and vegetables will generally make up the largest part of your meals. Try to add a variety of greens to your lunch and dinners and if you can snack on fruit, you can easily reach the 5 a day recommendation.

Once again, portion sizes will vary. If you exercise regularly, you may need more food than someone who isn’t very active - in this case, a sports nutritionist may be able to help you.

Reference intakes (RIs)

Reference intakes, or recommended daily amounts (RDAs) are used as general guidelines as to what the average person needs. These can be found on the back of food and drink packaging and can help us understand what is in foods. Similar to the traffic light system printed on the front of most food packaging, knowing what we are eating can encourage us to make healthier choices.

These are only a guide, based on the average UK female. If you would like to learn more about what your body requires, based on your health and lifestyle, consider talking to a nutrition professional.

Wherever you are on your journey, remember that help is available.

5 a day

Reaching five portions a day can seem daunting, but it can be easy to incorporate these into your diet if you share them between meals. For example:

  • Add a banana and a handful of spinach to your breakfast smoothie (two portions).
  • As a mid-morning snack have carrot sticks and hummus, or sliced apple (one portion).
  • Prepare a homemade vegetable soup for lunch (one to two portions).
  • To accompany your chicken or salmon dinner, make a filling side dish. Mix up some peppers, onions and greens with grains (one to two portions).
  • If you’re a dessert person, have a handful of fresh raspberries (one portion).

For more ideas or more information, visit our 5 a day page.

The processes in our bodies, such as the digestive system, the circulatory system and the immune system, all require certain minerals to function. Fortunately, there are many fruits and vegetables available, all ranging in shape, size, taste and nutritional value.

Copper, iron, potassium and zinc are four minerals that are essential to the body. While vitamins A, B6 and vitamin C are key in our growth and providing us with energy. To learn more about which minerals and vitamins are found in which foods, and how they can benefit your health, please contact a nutrition professional.

One way to up your intake of vegetables is to reduce your meat intake and enjoy more vegetarian meals. Learn more about meat-free Mondays

Saturated and unsaturated fat

There are two types of fat that can be found in food, saturated and unsaturated. Unsaturated fat can help lower cholesterol and provide essential fatty acid, omega-3. Found in oily fish, such as mackerel, tuna and salmon, avocado, nuts and olive oil, unsaturated fat can also help the body absorb vital vitamins, such as vitamin A, D and E.

Saturated fat can be found in cakes, biscuits, crisps, hard cheese and pastry. Eating an excess of saturated fat can lead to health problems, it can raise cholesterol in the blood which, in turn, increases the risk of developing heart disease.

Sugars and starchy foods

There are two types of sugar - refined and unrefined. Refined sugars are added to food, for example in sweets, desserts and fizzy drinks. Too much refined sugar can be harmful to the body. Unrefined sugar in moderation can be beneficial for the body and provides a quick, effective burst of energy. These are the naturally occurring sugars found in fruit and honey.

Starchy foods are often the victim of many crash diets, with people 'cutting carbs' in an attempt to lose weight. However, starchy foods play a vital role in maintaining a balanced diet.

Starchy foods such as grains, pulses, oats and bread provide slow-releasing energy, as well as being good sources of fibre, calcium, iron and vitamin B. Whole grain varieties are recommended, as they generally contain more fibre, supporting the digestive system and keeping you fuller for longer.

Protein

Protein is essential for the body and helps develop and repair muscles. We can find this in meat, fish, beans, eggs, dairy and tofu. Protein seems to have gained popularity and while it’s beneficial to the body, too much can be detrimental. If you are concerned about your protein intake and want to know more, contact a nutrition professional.

Salt

Like sugar, salt is added to food for taste. Ready meals and pre-cooked products will often have salt added in production, for example, pizza, pre-made soup, bread and table sauces and many of us will add salt to our recipes, whether it needs it or not. The thing is, too much salt can lead to high blood pressure, which increases the risk of developing heart disease.

How to stay hydrated

The Eatwell Guide suggests we drink six to eight glasses of fluid a day. This includes water, tea, coffee and sugar-free drinks. Like all things nutrition, water intake depends on the individual and the lifestyle they lead.

We need water to survive - we all know this - but it has many other benefits. Water acts as our body’s solvent. It carries waste, nutrients and other important components around our body, as well as keeping our skin and hair in good condition. Professionals suggest aiming for around two litres of water a day, though they advise listening to your body and monitoring the colour of your urine. Dark coloured urine suggests your kidneys are conserving water due to dehydration, whereas pale-yellow urine indicates a well-hydrated body.

If you find you don’t drink enough water, consider investing in a one-litre bottle and keeping it with you at all times. Be sure to fill it in the morning and again at lunchtime, if you haven’t been drinking enough, this will help you keep track. Alternatively, set hourly reminders on your phone and if you’re not keen on the taste of plain water, add some lemon slices.

As with anything in nutrition and nutritional therapy, water intake is a very individual issue, affected by multiple factors. What might be right for somebody else, may not be right for you.

- Read nutritional therapist, Amanda Morris' tips on staying hydrated.

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